Hard fight over crime bill underscores Clinton's tenacity, lack of popularity


WASHINGTON -- The resurrection of the sweeping $30 billion crime bill, approved by the Senate 61-38 last night, highlighted President Clinton's strengths -- and his weaknesses.

On the one hand, saving the bill showcased the president's tenacity, his resourcefulness and his willingness to fight fiercely for an issue he cares about.

"This shows that presidential persistence can change the way Washington works," said White House domestic policy adviser Bruce Reed.

At the same time, the crime bill's tortuous route underscored the president's lack of personal popularity, revealed flaws with the way his administration has sought to build coalitions and laid bare the weakness of the administration's Democrats-only approach to health care reform.

For those reasons, key Democrats on Capitol Hill and some White House aides privately acknowledged that yesterday's victory was bittersweet -- and that it came with a price. Even Mr. Clinton, who is usually jubilant after legislative victories, was strangely subdued when he spoke to reporters in the Rose Garden after a hard-won vote to resurrect the bill in the Senate yesterday.

"Today, senators of both parties took a brave and promising step to bring the long, hard wait for a crime bill closer to an end," the president said quietly. "I want to salute the senators of both Republican and Democratic ranks who put law and order, safety and security, above politics and party."

It was Mr. Clinton, however, who had risked the most on this bill -- and who stood to lose the most if it had been killed by Republicans.

"It would have been just awful," said one White House aide, shaking his head. "Awful, awful awful. He would have had no vacation, when Congress came back, the session would have been full of bad feelings that would have gone on until Christmas. The Republicans would have taken turns taking their shots at him -- like a tag-team."

Instead, Mr. Clinton has eked out yet another of his narrow victories, and even Republicans gave him the credit for turning it around.

It was Mr. Clinton who realized last summer that the crime-prevention strategies favored by liberals and the hard-line law-enforcement solutions advocated by conservatives were not in conflict. In fact, Mr. Clinton reasoned, the two approaches complemented each other -- and were politically salable to a nation weary of violence.

Thus, it was Mr. Clinton who put the White House four-square behind a plan that had money for prison construction and money for drug-treatment programs inside those prisons. It was Mr. Clinton who fought for money for "community policing" and for the tough "three strikes and you're out" provision in the bill.

Finally, it was Mr. Clinton who dropped everything for two weeks, including his administration's most cherished issue, health reform, to speak at police conventions, meet with crime victims and cajole everyone from the liberals in the Congressional Black Caucus who oppose capital punishment to Republicans whose main worry about the bill was that it stirred the wrath of the National Rifle Association.

"This bill is centrist and bipartisan to its very bone," Mr. Clinton said this week.

In the end, his efforts prevailed. But what was distressing to some in the White House was the realization that one reason the crime bill was in trouble was that it was so closely identified with Mr. Clinton in the first place.

At times during the past 14 days, Republicans in both the House and the Senate made little effort to conceal the fact that they were trying to embarrass the president -- and trying to get back at Democratic leaders for years of what they saw as being shut out of the process.

The vehemence of this feeling seemed to catch the White House by surprise.

Sen. William Cohen, a moderate Maine Republican, for instance, was wooed personally by Mr. Clinton -- and counted on by some White House strategists for support. Yet Mr. Cohen voted against resurrecting the bill yesterday (though he later voted to pass the bill), and in his statement giving his reasons, launched into a bitter denunciation of the way Republicans are treated by Democrats in both houses.

More important, however, as Mr. Clinton's approval rating has hovered in the low 40s all summer, he discovered he has little pull with conservative Democrats in marginal Democratic districts. This is an election year, and such Democrats figured that doing the bidding of the National Rifle Association carries less baggage than supporting Mr. Clinton.

Asked whether he wanted Mr. Clinton or Vice President Al Gore to appear in his district while he campaigns, one of those conservative Democrats, Rep. Don Johnson of Georgia, said, "Only if they are coming down to endorse my opponent."

"Personally, I think he was right in not caving in on the assault weapon ban," said Jim Duffy, a Democratic campaign consultant. "But it shows how little respect these [conservative Democrats] have for him. No one fears retribution for voting against the leadership. No one fears retribution for voting against their own president."

Thus, even with a 78-seat Democratic advantage in the House, the president was forced to make concessions on the bill to House Republicans -- and to ardently woo Republican votes in both the House and the Senate for two weeks.

That is the strategy that ultimately prevailed in the House, just as it did yesterday in the Senate.

"I assume the headline will read, 'Republicans Hand Clinton a Victory,' " complained Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, who was bitter that Republicans helped keep the crime bill alive.

"That's bipartisanship, I guess," added the Kansas Republican.

But many moderate Democrats were delighted that Mr. Clinton had been forced to seek consensus in the middle of the political spectrum.

This was also the formula he used in shepherding the North American Free Trade Agreement through the Congress. And Democrats such as Mr. Duffy said they hoped the White House and the Democratic congressional leaders would see the light and try to build a centrist coalition of Republicans and Democrats on a scaled-down health care proposal.

"That's where the country is," said Mr. Duffy. "And that's where the votes are in Congress. He can't do it with just Democrats."

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